Are you suurrre your workforce will report toxic behavior?

by Aug 4, 2021

Recently I saw this article on HR Dive (a great enewsletter, by the way). It’s an interview with Wharton School professor G. Richard Shell, who recently released the book, “The Conscience Code.”
Shell talks about the internal and external dialogue one might have when considering whether to report bad behavior. Keeping in mind that people who report unethical behavior are called whistleblowers, that leaves a person in this position to think, “Well, I have to be a whistleblower… or not.”
It’s easy to decide, “Welp, I’d rather not” because whistleblowers are, by nature of speaking up against others in the group, disloyal to the group. They’re tattlers; a quality we all learned to stay away from when we were little.
But they’re also courageous and ready to jump off a cliff. Shell offers up the term, “a person of conscience,” to replace “whistleblower,” to remind us that people who speak up should be role models and not given a bad rap. You can count on them to support your company’s values. You need them.
Anyone who considers reporting toxic behavior to a manager or HR is indeed a person of a conscience. Whether or not they take the plunge is dependent upon the organization’s culture, however.
In our experience running allyship training for thousands of people over the years, we’ve spotted five clear reasons people don’t report bad behavior to HR, or speak up within their own team to address the behavior at that level: 
  1. They fear retaliation from the organization and/or the perpetrator of bad behavior.
  2. They fear reporting the behavior will make it worse for targets.
  3. They don’t know what to say or how to say it (paralysis by analysis).
  4. They see themselves as bystanders who should keep their nose out of other people’s business, or the target has asked them not to get involved.
  5. They believe their responsibility to report behavior starts with illegal harassment or discrimination. They’ve not been told that the gray area leading up to that – incivility, microaggressions, sarcastic and inappropriate jokes, unprofessionalism – should be reported too.
So, consider what drives people to fear retaliation and how you as an HR professional or leader can overcome that. How can you convince people speaking out is acceptable and encouraged? How can you show your workforce they will be supported if they get involved?
Consider what messages your organization sends, or doesn’t send, that signals retaliation is a real possibility. Do you have bullying behavior at the top? Does one person consistently get a hall pass for bad behavior because of their ability to bring in clients? Do people make inappropriate jokes that are brushed aside? If this type of behavior is not being addressed, your organization is inviting people to think twice before speaking up.
Also consider how you respond to complaints of behavior that isn’t illegal. Do you downplay the issue by asking the complainer to work it out on their own? Do you stick to the legal definition of a hostile work environment, thereby downplaying the complaint because bullying isn’t technically a hostile work environment? Do you come across as dismissive because you have other pressing issues on your plate (ahem, COVID)?
Unfortunately, HR has a bad rap among targets of workplace bullying and harassment and they have a long way to go to rebuild trust. Have a peek at this 5 min section of my keynote at the International Association for Workplace Bullying and Harassment, for example, where I highlight some research on this point. You could also peruse any workplace bullying support group on Facebook, and be ready to cringe at the commentary about HR.
You’ve also got to teach people how to be an ally for themselves and others. It’s not a natural skill to jump into something that our instinct marks as dangerous to survival. Give your workforce clear and tangible tools for identifying even low-level unacceptable behavior and speaking up within their own teams. And set clear expectations around their getting involved.
Help your workforce see that if they observe ugly behavior, they are in fact not inactive and passive bystanders, they are involved whether they want to be or not. They must either address the behavior in their team or report it to HR because they are people of conscience. 
In the end, a culture of speaking up doesn’t develop with a few trainings. It is indeed an organizational culture issue and must be addressed as such. You’ve got to find ways to infuse psychological safety into the everyday lives of your workforce.
We’ve had enough anxiety these last 18 months to last a lifetime, and it doesn’t appear to be ending anytime soon. Be a place where people feel comfortable and safe to be themselves, and you will have a loyal following in your workforce.
P.S. Check out my LinkedIn Learning course, From Bystander to Upstander. I made it free for everyone for the next 24-hours so you and your team can watch it even if you don’t have a subscription.

About Catherine Mattice

Catherine Mattice, MA, SPHR, SHRM-SCP is President of consulting and training firm, Civility Partners, and has been successfully providing programs in workplace bullying and building positive workplaces since 2007. Her clients include Fortune 500’s, the military, several universities and hospitals, government agencies, small businesses and nonprofits. She has published in a variety of trade magazines and has appeared several times on NPR, FOX, NBC, and ABC as an expert, as well as in USA Today, Inc Magazine, Huffington Post, Entrepreneur Magazine, and more. Catherine is Past-President of the Association for Talent Development (ATD), San Diego Chapter and teaches at National University. In his book foreword, Ken Blanchard called her book, BACK OFF! Your Kick-Ass Guide to Ending Bullying at Work, “the most comprehensive and valuable handbook on the topic.” She recently released a second book entitled, SEEKING CIVILITY: How Leaders, Managers and HR Can Create a Workplace Free of Bullying.

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